First Day Hike big success
Hike at Fort Stevenson State Parks draws record number of participants
GARRISON – The last bit of sunlight was vanishing rapidly. So calm was the evening that smoke from a crackling fire rose straight up into the darkness. It was unusually warm for the first day of January in North Dakota, perfect conditions for being outdoors.
People were coming and going from the Visitors Center at Lake Sakakawea State Park, eagerly anticipating the start of the park’s annual First Day Hike. The park’s entrance station was festively decorated, its colored lights helping illuminate an ever growing number of participants gathered in small groups nearby.
A long line of headlights seemed to stretch from Garrison, three miles distant, to the entrance of the park. Clearly, the first event of the year at Fort Stevenson State Park had attracted many more people than anticipated.
“I would say so,” said Chad Trautman, park manager. “We’ve had as few as 12 to 15 when it was negative 10 and windy. I’d guess our average has been 70 or 80 with the most probably 120 to 125.”
Not this time though. Not even close. The weather was ideal, not even ear coverings were necessary, and people were longing for relief from the coronavirus pandemic. An incredibly nice night in the outdoors, at a time of year when snow depth and wind chills and winter weather advisories are common in North Dakota, was a perfect prescription.
In past years participants used a pen and paper to register for the First Day Hike. COVID-19 changed that. This time hikers used their mobile devices to scan a QR code on a post near the trailhead for the hike to register. The number of hikers, young and old, was record setting.
“It was very well attended. The numbers show 344 showed up,” remarked Trautman. “That really flew past our 125 record!”
The self-guided hike on the park’s one mile long Flicker Loop , much of it through woodland, was lit by a combination of solar lights and luminaries, the latter which adds a special ambiance and is a proven attraction for the event.
“For me, the candles really kind of draw,” said Trautman. “Candlelight really helps add additional value to the hike.”
Among the attendees was Penney Wurtz of Fargo, who says she regularly walks her dog but doesn’t consider herself a true hiker.
“I just thought we’d try it. We’ve never been here before,” said Wurtz shortly before the start of the hike scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m.
Val Heisler of Velva was there too.
“This intrigued me. I walk a lot but I’m not a big hiker,” said Heisler. “This is my first time for this hike. I’ve always read about it and thought it would be kind of fun. It’s a beautiful night and I decided to come down.”
Indeed, conditions were remarkable. Warm temperatures throughout the day had diminished what little snow was on the ground, especially in the open areas. There was more concern about the possibility of hikers encountering mud on the trail than there was about snow and ice.
“We just wanted to get out on a beautiful night,” said Niki Roed, Minot, as she was about to head down the illuminated trail. “We just kind of figured it was an opportunity to get out and look around and spend some time outdoors. It’s a beautiful evening. New Year’s Day! What could be better?”
Camping reservations at North Dakota State Parks hit a record high this past year as people turned to the outdoors in the face of restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know there’s a high demand for recreation and we encourage more recreational activities,” said Trautman. “People are really hungry for this kind of stuff. They are looking for opportunities to get outside.”
Minot resident Julli Nissen was among those who made the trip to Fort Stevenson for the First Day Hike, along with three grandchildren.
“I’m grandma to all these three,” said Nissen with a wave of her hand toward a trio of 3-year-olds that included twins. “I’ve done the first hike every year since its been going on.”
Tracy Nissen, Minot, was happy to be taking part in the First Day Hike as well. When asked why, she responded, “Just trying the 12 hikes in 12 months challenge.”
The challenge is a State Parks’ promotion. Participants are asked to complete 12 hikes on any of 20 qualifying trails at State Parks in 2021 to be eligible for prize packages. Details can be found on the State Parks website.
The Visitors Center at Fort Stevenson State Park will remain open until 7 p.m. throughout the winter. Kicksleds are available for rent, a good way for adults and young children to tour the park, snow permitting. Snow shoes, cross country skis and fat tire bikes are also available. Additionally, said Trautman, solar lights placed along trails will remain in place.
“They are new and will stay up all winter as long as they are working,” said Trautman.
Fort Stevenson State Park is located three miles south of Garrison along the shore of Lake Sakakawea.